Sunday, January 18, 2009

Social Media Conference organizers; Here's what I want to see

I attended and spoke at several social media/marketing conferences in 2008, and already have several trips planned for 2009 (Keep up with where I'll be this year by checking here). Almost every conference had areas where it shined, and some that were lacking. I know that right now many people are planning events for later in the Spring and Summer, so here's some tips on what I'd like to see:

1 - Reliable internet access and plenty of power outlets. Over half the events I attended had problems with spotty internet access, and some had few or no power outlets. Organizers, assume that every attendee will be bringing a laptop and need a power outlet. Make sure the conference center or other venue you contact has the capability to handle this, as well as every attendee trying to access their wifi network at once.

2 - Lengthy breaks between sessions. At least 15 mins, 30 mins is better. What happens when a session ends? Audience members almost always go to ask the speaker(s) questions. If they know they only have a few minutes till the next session starts, they might not ask those questions, and move on to the next session. Give them at least 30 mins, that way even if they all leave and go to the next session, that gives them time to meet each other before the next session starts.

3 - Make sure you have enough room for everyone that wants to attend a session. This was another problem at several conferences, attendees not being able to see a session, because the room was full. I remember at one conference I wanted to stay and talk to the presenters afterward, but I knew I had to leave immediately to go to the next session so I could make sure I got a seat.

4 - Pick a venue with big and open areas, and extra rooms for impromptu meetings. This is where SXSW excels. The best part of SXSW happens in the hallways, and there are plenty of them. Wide open areas are more comfortable and it encourages to meet and form breakout groups to discuss what they have learned. Marketing Profs Digital Marketing Mixer was also at a venue with plenty of area for attendees to break off and meet with each other.

5 - Encourage speakers to attend the entire conference, and as many sessions as possible. Speakers are a key draw for any conference, and you want them to be as accessible as possible to the attendees. And this ties into Point #4, but if your conference has speakers that are accessible, you might see them meeting with a group of attendees after one of the sessions.

6 - Have built-in networking/meetup opportunities. This is a must if your event is more than one day. Make sure you set aside some time (first night is usually the best for a multi-day event) for attendees to get together and mingle with each other, and the speakers. The key to a great social media conference is learning, and that is greatly facilitated by interaction. If you create ways for the people at your event to meet and interact, you'll increase the chances that they'll learn.

7 - Have FUN! I attended and spoke at two Small Business Marketing Unleashed conferences in 2008, and hope to be at two this year. One reason why I love SBMU is because Jennifer and the gang go out of their way to make sure that everyone learns a ton, and has a ton of fun. Whether it was speed networking, an ice cream sundae bar, or playing life-sized Jenga, SBMU does a great job of keeping attendees entertained, laughing, and bonding.

8 - Don't worry about being huge, worry about thrilling your attendees. This is for people that are thinking about launching their first conference this year. Don't be upset if your first event has a smaller crowd than you hoped for. Instead, make it your mission to absolutely thrill the attendees that do show up. I'll reference SBMU again. The Houston show last April was their first event, and the attendance was well under 100, probably closer to 50. But Robert, Vicki and Jennifer went out of their way to make sure that those 50 or 60 attendees had an amazing 2 days. Their goal was to thrill the attendees for the first SBMU, with the hope being that they could justify having it again this April. Instead, the attendees absolutely raved about the April event, so much so that they decided to have another SBMU just 5 months after the first. And that September event was roughly DOUBLE the size of the first SBMU. Jennifer explained that about 40% of the attendees came from Twitter, where attendees from the first SBMU encouraged their followers to come to the second event. So don't worry if your first event has a small crowd, if you can convert that small crowd into an excited group of evangelists for your next conference, then you are set.

At the end of the day, you want to create an event that fosters a learning environment. This space is in a non-stop state of flux, and your attendees are coming to learn. Don't disappoint them, establish an environment where they are encouraged to participate, and where the speakers are encouraged to interact with them. The people that will be attending your event are hungry for knowledge, so make sure that they go back home with a plan of action, and excited about the new possibilities that they uncovered during your conference.

If you have attended social media conferences in the past, what did you like/dislike?

Pic via Flickr user JackieBaker330


Anonymous said...

not just Social Media event organizers...any event organizers.

nice list.


wsh1266 said...

As an organizer of Podcamps, I certainly understand your wish list, but it causes a ton of logistics problems. 1) non-stop internet access, guaranteed, with the geek crowd, is not easy to do. Plus, running lines for access at certain venues can be expensive- $1,500 minimum for each node. So I would suggest if you ned access, you plan on bringing your own with EVDO- then you don't have to depend on anyone else's wonky wifi. We also suggest people bring their own power strips to make sure they have access to power and can meet people sharing with others.
2) You can never anticipate, for sure, how many people will want to attend each session, since we don't require people to "prechoose" sessions in advance. Room size and attendees is a guess, but we do encourage speakers to record their sessions and post afterwards. This sounds like a great thing to do, but in reality, it's largely impossible, at least at smaller, community based social media conferences like Podcamp.
3)We encourage speakers to limit their presentation to 30 minutes of a 45 minute spot, to make sure there's about 30 minutes for q & a and transition. 15 minutes in between in usually okay; 30 minutes between 45 minute sessions makes sessions start on the quarter hour which gets hairy in terms of people remembering when stuff starts (Easier at top or bottom of the hour) and if we make the breaks in between too long, it limits the number of people we have speaking- so your "leisure time" subtracts from someone else's presentation time and content.
4) I agree all speakers should be encouraged to attend and participate in all aspects of the conference, not just show up, speak and leave. In fact, i think this actually is just bad manners on the part of most speakers- they should want to get to know their audience, if at all possible.
5) I agree having social events is important, and helps bring the community together in a more social way before/after a day's event. This is a cornerstone of most Podcamps, and we find this, along with coffee 7 donuts, really helps to get people talking and connecting.

Anyway, just adding my 2 cents from someone who helps organize community-based unconferences, the challenges we face doing it all on a boot-strapped budget, to try to make the event free or low cost to attend, and what is typically possible/not easy to do, just to give you a behind-the-scenes perspective.

GeekMommy said...

Great post Mack - can I add two I *know* you meant to have on there?

9. Make sure there is FOOD somewhere accessible. If you make your attendees go out/offsite in search of lunch, expect a lot of them not to make it back on time for the first session afterwards. Yes, I know Social Media junkies don't eat - but if you don't build time in for breakfast, lunch & dinner - or you don't provide it? You will have a lot of people missing key speakers and panels.

10. Keep timezones somewhat in mind - if you're conference is in New York and you expect a lot of Bay Area people to show up - scheduling an 8 a.m. keynote means expecting those folks to be there at 5 a.m. their time - yeah... right. If you're in Seattle and you want the Boston folks to come? Planning a party that doesn't start until 9pm means you think they'll come to something that starts at midnight.

Just adding my 2 cents. :) Love the post Mack! See ya at some of these things soon I hope!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I will retweet it, for sure! I have one more suggestion is that we work harder to practice what we are all preaching. A day of presentations (even if they are short and interesting) is a traditional conference. Conference designers should look at increasing opportunities for conversation: not just "after a speaker". Why not have moderated sessions where people can get together and discuss their biews? Why not have a session where someone can pose a problem (pre-written) and those of us who like problem-solving can help? Some people learn by having someone talk at them, but this is often a much less helpful method that what we all know works!

Chris Houchens said...

#1 is a good point. I've been many places where you couldn't get any signal and people were auctioning off places on their power strip.

I did a post a few days ago outlying why you should cancel your conference/meeting

Anonymous said...

11. Put up a BIG sign on old-fashioned paper with the Twitter hashtag for that event, saves attendees time in fishing around for it online.


Anonymous said...

Problem Statement:
If the reigning problem is always Wi-Fi and power why not offer a potential solution to the problem rather than argue the details with the establishment?

Answer is simple break down the barriers!

I would suggest that if power outlets and free Wi-Fi is a "big" inconvenience to setup then invite a sponsor like At&T or Verizon and let them sell/offer free air cards and let Wi-Fi needy individual’s sign up for the service. (

I know I would have bought one long ago if it have been offered when I was in a state of need at an event.

Need power:
Invite a sponsor to give them out/sell them. Here's a nice compatible sized one I would definitely buy if I needed. Here is one example: There are lots of others as well.

Just some passing thoughts...

Elizabeth Hannan

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with your suggestions. Organizers pay attention - these are solid points that many attendees would agree with.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mack.

Totally agree with the wi-fi and outlets part of your post, but I think a bigger part of making sure the conference experience is a positive one for attendees is speaker access.

I can't TELL you how many conference organizers have been shocked that I have attended almost the entire conference. I'm always shocked that they're shocked.

Many have told them that speakers just come to the event, present and then retreat to their hotel rooms.

Granted, I've had to retreat to my room to attend client meetings, but as speakers it's really important to help those who hire you to speak. If you help to create a positive experience for attendees, you'll not only make a great name for yourself as a speaker, but you'll be invited back.

Noah Wolfe said...

1. Internet access and outlets

This is spot on. At a social media conference everyone in attendance is "press". If you want to maximize post-event (and live event) publicity net access and outlets are key.

I especially appreciate outlets as my laptop battery is getting old. :(

chel.pixie said...

I'm pondering this year's Podcamp Boston and I can see where your suggestions are helpful.

One word on the wifi. As a smaller conference we've always had spotty problems with wifi access. Considering that BCEC (The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center) failed to keep up with Podcampers. Yet, Harvard's The Joseph B. Martin Conference Center kept up with the flow, barring some issues with a patch being installed in the middle of the weekend that took the whole system down.

WiFi in conferences places as a rule varies, some conference centers got this down and some really don't.

Cost is definitely a barrier for smaller conferences.

Thanks for this point of view Mack.

paulmerrill said...

Went to PodCamp Boulder this just-past weekend. It was great!!

Positive features:

- Everyone was a rockstar - all contributions were valued & all could lead a session, if they wanted!

- It was free, right down to the beverages, courtesy of some very nice sponsors.

- It was extremely laid back. No one worried if everything wasn't perfect.

Anonymous said...

Mack this is a great post and as someone that is helping the folks at Blog World Expo, I have all of these same ideas in mind when approaching things.

Wifi is a huge thing in conferences. Unlike the folks in Boston. (I interviewed the head of the visitors authority and he made wifi free to anyone in their properties) Vegas has a specific vendor you have to use. they spend huge amounts of money to even get this contract. You have to use them and no other alternatives. Therefore, they can charge whatever rate they feel is right. It can price you right out of business if they want. Sponsors will help in this arena but again it is tough. It can feel somewhat like extortion. We have the wifi and you need how much is it worth to you to have it? Elizabeth, some facilities would not let Verizon or anyone else come in and provide Wifi as it is against the contract that sole companies works so hard to get. Yeah it is a racket.

Same with all the things we take for granted. Power. A power strip is like $100 and then you hav to pay to have the union install it. Yeah I am not lying about that. Minimum charges apply.

I am going to bring up the food thing Lucretia. They actually changed that at Blog World last year. Again you are required to use the conference facilities union to serve your food. You cannot even order out for pizzas or bring donuts for the speakers.

Many speakers are also busy with big time schedules. they fly in and fly out again for just their presentations. i really like the idea of a speaker dinner or meetup where they all are accessible to the attendees. I'm all for the learning experience.

I would love to have you on Blog World Expo Radio to talk about these points and we can address them so that others realize that as organizers they all want these things, but the "system" does not allow many to accomplish this. It's either cost prohibitive or against the rules set out by the facility.

I will get a show set up on Blog World Radio ad we can all discuss these things. After all, what a great way to use social media to accomplish our wants and needs!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post with very relevant ideas. I work a lot with marketing teams and presenters putting on the conference and have offered some operational tips in this article: 7 Keys to Improving Your 2009 User Conference

These tips include:

* Before setting a theme, clarify the objective of the conference. What are you trying to accomplish?

* Create a "marketing blueprint" to drive attendance. How will you get people to your event? You need a plan.

* Never forget that content is king! Good content doesn't just come together.

* Always follow-up with customers. Customers always want to know what you did with the feedback you collected.

*Share customer feedback internally as soon as possible. Don't keep customer feedback a secret. Share it widely.

* Make it visible. There's nothing like a visible executive sponsor to help you rally your team of presenters.

* Participation requires commitment. Set rules of engagement for presenters and company participants.

These tips, along with the logistical best practices, will make any conference world-class.

Anonymous said...

Great ideas, now let's hope some event organizers listen!